Saturday, April 26, 2008

More on Flash and Substance

In his post (proceeding this one) about the National Archives site "the National Archives Experience" Larry raises an important point about substance, or lack thereof, in Web presentations. His comment toward the end of his post is hugely important. He says, "designers apparently became enamored of all the pretty things they could do with their documents and flash, and forgot to make the site useful or to give it a purpose." I decided to check out the site, and I had exactly the same reaction. The site is glitzy, yes, and glitz can be grand, yes, but alas the archives site is completely random. I can envision an audience seeing the site demoed and going "oooh" and "ahhh" about what new technologies can do on screen. But as for teaching anything substantive about the past, it's as if a teacher took a stack of 1,200 history-based index cards and threw them over the classroom, and called it a lesson. 


How do we learn from the National Archives site, build on it, do it better? I immediately thought of one of my favorite sites, "Echoes from the Past: Prehistoric Archaeology in Quebec," produced by the University of Montreal and folded into the Virtual Museum of Canada web site.

The introduction to this site is one of the most elegant evocations of history I have encountered anywhere on the Internet.  With music and images it tugs at the heart strings, and of course, that "tug" is just the impulse that brought many of us to the study of  history. The introduction to this Quebec site tells us that by entering we will be able to explore: "Places of Discovery," "The Voices of Objects," "A Science and its Concepts," and "Travel Through Time."

The careful arranging of the site helps us along by providing a good concise navigation scheme and good honest prose like this: 

Prehistoric archaeology in Quebec offers a way of uncovering traces of the past that are often hidden beneath the surface.  Researchers seek to to understand the customs and lifeways of the men, women and children who once lived in this territory and adapted to various natural surroundings and social contexts in order to survive.  Discovering the roots of these early populations means travelling back in time and being attentive to the stories recounted by the landscape.

The topics indicated in the navigation scheme make sense and build carefully to a thoughtful presentation of the multi-faceted prehistory of Quebec. (Click "skip the introduction" to go directly to the navigation scheme.) Subjects include: concepts, places, words, and objects. Click on any one of these, and the subsequent choices make sense. In the case of "words," for example, we have a choice of legends, including "Iroquois Creation Story." (Click "skip the introduction" and then "words" to get to the legends.)

I could envision using this site along with the National Archives site in a course on History and New Media, with the archives site, unfortunately, showing the pitfalls of a site that is strong on new media wizardry, but weak on historical content.  We then look at the Quebec site.  It's a lot better, we agree.  But how could we improve on even this admirable site? We go to the words section and look at the Iroquois Creation Story. (Click "skip the introduction" and then "Words" and choose "Iroquois Creation Story.") Good content, agreed, and we can read from the text the actual legend, agreed, but how could we make it better?  What if we had an Indian's voice on the page speaking the legend.... And what if we had the sound of a fire crackling in the background for atmosphere?

What if? What if?  The tools of new media call to us to exercise our imaginations and our intellects and so create new and exciting ways of evoking the past.  

What if? What if?

It's a grand adventure!

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